Dead Air

I usually listen to podcasts on my drive to work.  A little micro power FM transmitter attached to my iPod broadcasts the program to my car’s radio tuned to 103.3 Mhz.

This is what I heard when I turned off the iPod transmitter today in the parking lot at the office:

… and I’ll be back after I wake up the engineer. Talk to you soon…

Then dead air.

Naturally I was curious about this station that I had not noticed before, apparently having some technical issues. Intrigued, I remained in the car and listened to the dead air.

The carrier was not full quieting, but strong enough to maintain the stereo pilot except when other cars drove past me in the parking lot.

Every now and then some hum or a tone, playback device being rebooted?

It was getting close to 9AM so I figured I would soon get a legal id if the mic in the studio was still working. I figured it was since the DJ (if that’s what he was) had the ability to alert the listeners that something was wrong before going silent.

After about 9 minutes of dead air, music returned to the air with a country version of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, in progress. This was followed by a legal id of “The Redwood Empire’s True Country 103.3 KUKI, Ukiah.”

I’m happy they were able to end the nightmare and return to the air quickly.

The Amateur’s Code

This is not a blog about amateur radio. But I think the word ‘amateur’ is important to understand.

from L. amatorem (nom. amator) “lover,” agent noun from amatus, pp. of amare “to love”

And as distinguished from ‘professional’ – it’s not something you with the motive of making money. However, that doesn’t mean that ‘amateur’, something done for the love of it, is exclusive of excellence. In fact, the more love there is in your effort the more likely is is to be done with excellence.

With this in mind, I think ‘amateur broadcasters’ can borrow liberally from the ‘Amateur’s Code originally penned by Paul M. Segal, W9EEA  in 1928. Here are points that I think are equally applicable to broadcasters that do it for the love of radio:

CONSIDERATE never knowingly operating in such a way as to lessen the pleasure of others.
PROGRESSIVE with knowledge abreast of science, a well built and efficient station, and operation beyond reproach.
FRIENDLY with slow and patient operation when requested, friendly advice and counsel to the beginner, kindly assistance, co-operation and consideration for the interests of others. These are the hallmarks of the amateur spirit.
BALANCED Radio is an avocation, never interfering with duties owed to family, job, school or community.
PATRIOTIC with station and skill always ready for service to country and community

The careful reader will notice that I left out “loyalty” – not that I think loyalty is an undesirable trait – only that as written in “the code” it doesn’t really apply to broadcasters.

What I really want to focus on is the “Patriotic” part of the code.  A radio station and broadcasters skill at the ready for service to country and community is what this it’s all about. Note that it doesn’t say “service to government” or “service to corporate interests.”

Note that the code was written well before 1934. In my option this only adds weight to our moral authority and obligation to use the broadcast airwaves in service of our communities, regardless of the what the federal government may have to say on the matter.

What about AM?

I am now considering the possibility of broadcasting Richmond District Radio programs on AM or a combination of AM and FM in simulcast.

I like AM for a variety of reasons. Part 15 rules for AM puts constraints on power and antenna system, but not on field strength, which means it’s technically possible to get a signal farther afield than an FM signal under the same rules, given the height I have available to me.

AM is relatively simple technology. Simple means reliable. Now, I don’t expect listeners to build their own radio receivers, but with the AM band it’s certainly doable. In a perfect world, we would have community radio building meetup nights.

Modern AM is not known for its high fidelity sound, this is more an issue of narrow IF bandwidth radios that are common nowadays. But, since I plan on airing mostly spoken word this would not the same problem as it would if our program consisted mainly of  music.

A downside of going AM is that I don’t have any AM transmitting equipment whatsoever (not the case with FM). Any AM transmitter would have to be purchased, or more likely, constructed. Transmitters for personal use, not for sale, do not require FCC certification – although they must employ good engineering practices throughout and your output must meet spectral purity requirements.

I’ve tried to separate marketing hype from truth regarding coverage area possible with Part 15 AM.  I believe that with a high enough antenna and decent ground system I have a good chance of putting a usable signal across my target area of north side of The Park to Lake Street, from USF west to Park Presidio.

Some of the obvious problems are interference from numerous noise sources. Not only power lines, but electric buses, computers, and the generally high urban radio noise floor. Also, nighttime broadcasts might suffer significant competition from distant stations.

Just thinking, I could equip my IC-725 MF/HF radio with the UI-7 board (which enables AM transmit). Then, in an emergency, I could run the ICOM on broadcast band frequencies.

If it weren’t for the pesky rules, I could use the Icom as a carrier exciter for everyday operation.  I’d need to assemble an amplifier and modulator stages. Hmmm… just thinking…

Adding To The Mix

The “studio” for Richmond Radio (presently just a corner of my living room) needs to serve both as place to originate broadcasts and a production facility of sorts.

I think most of the programming on Richmond Radio will be pre-produced, with only occasional live shows. And while I’d love to have a real broadcast console, I 1) don’t have the money for one and 2) need a production oriented mixing board.

To that end I’ve picked up an inexpensive Yamaha MG10/2 mixing console. It’s not the be-all end-all of mixers but it will do the job for now.

The MG10/2 gives me two mono microphone channels and four stereo line channels. Two of the stereo channels can be used as mic channels for a total of four possible mics.

Pre and post fader AUX sends lets me do special setups, like a mix-minus for VOIP interviews.

Here is a view of our FM processor. The Optimod is old (circa 1978) but is a perfectly good compressor/limiter and stereo multiplexer.

Plans for the Optimod are to run mono for most radio broadcasts. With a part 15 signal I don’t need to expend energy broadcasting in stereo. Especially, with a program that will likely not feature a lot of music. The ICOM IC-725 and Uniden scanner are not part of the Richmond Radio setup at this time.

Another option for using the Optimod is to take the ‘test’ L and R outputs, run them through a de-emphasis network and use the resulting compressed and limited signal to drive the input of an internet streaming client.

The next immediate requirement is to construct a microphone pre-amp to boost our dynamic mic signal before feeding it to the mixer.

Our Civic Duty

I hate the term “pirate radio” to describe unlicensed broadcasting. I am against thievery, I don’t condone anarchy, and I am not against commercial activity. In fact I am fairly conservative in my ways.

I don’t think radio, licensed or unlicensed, needs to broadcast vulgar material in order to achieve some sort of shock value. I don’t see how doing so serves the community in any meaningful way.

But the fact is, the obligation to serve the community is largely ignored by the majority of licensed broadcasters to which “pirates” are purportedly responding.

My apologies, I am starting to rant here a little bit.

What I wanted to do with this post is respond to NAB’s AM study as I read about on the Engineering Radio blog – if in fact the NAB is pushing AM toward an all digital, patented technology, and if the FCC is going along with it then it would appear that analog broadcasting on MW is all but being abandoned. And, abandoned in favor of a technology that has only a smattering of listeners, if that many.

Again, I’ve lost sight of how the community is served.

If I can serve people in my neighborhood with existing, inexpensive, and reliable technology then why shouldn’t I? Should I wait for the MW airwaves to fall silent? Should I wait for disaster to strike before developing my station and skill in aid of my community?

Don’t get me wrong, I am not against licensing. I hold a license in an other radio service. I value that license and believe that it’s my duty to use my station and expertise to aid my community and country in time of need.

I also understand the need for order on the airwaves. Chaos serves no one. But chaos is just about what we have now and the government solution seems to point toward abandonment.

So, at what point does it become our civic duty to use analog over the air broadcasting to serve our local communities, irrespective of whether our station is licensed?